So long, and thanks for all the fish

Olive“Canada is a great country much too cold for good sense, inhabited by compassionate, intelligent people with bad hairdos.” Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Enter: The Aussie marine mammal scientist

One train, two busses, three taxis, and five flights later I arrive in Port Hardy, BC, to meet our expedition vessel, Gwaii Haanas. This is my second expedition for Raincoast’s Marine Mammal Survey. The expedition crew are a mixed bunch, possessing passion, competency, and a great sense of humour (needed if one is going to volunteer to cross a lumpy Hecate Strait 15 times!)

We were out to Triangle Island, 80 mile off-shore for the first transect – the longest and roughest first up! Bless the Americans for one thing: Bonamine sea sick tablets. Our research vessel is an aluminium power boat much like an oversized beer can with a motor, but she is safe and comfortable. Our research platform above the wheelhouse provides a great view from which we locate, identify, and measure the angle and distance to whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions, and sea otters. All in all we encountered 11 different species, most of which we will now be able to generate abundance estimates for. This research is particularly important for the conservation and management of marine mammals on the coast, and is the first of its kind in BC.

In four weeks we managed to complete 18 long transects from the Alaska border to the northern end of Vancouver Island, mostly zigzagging across Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound between the Queen Charlotte Islands and the mainland. On some transects we had nothing but Molamola (sunfish), salmon sharks, and bad renditions of Muppet songs, and thus, were beginning to think the whales were avoiding us.

But it just happened that they were having a major feeding shindig at the south end of Moresby Island…honestly I almost had a coronary…as far as the eye could see, in every direction, fin and humpback whales…”I see a blow at 280 degrees, another blow, breech, blow, three..no wait, five in this pod, more at 40 degrees, six fins behind us, blow, blow…holy @#$%!”

So many sightings at the same time had all of the crew up in the observer platform at once, trying to count and identify species. The poor person responsible for writing down the data was in a confusion frenzy – the GPS couldn’t think quickly enough to give all the positions!

We had two extraordinary encounters with over 1000 pacific white sided dolphins. None of us had ever seen sooooo many dolphins. It was like a wall of white water spanning the horizon and coming towards us. Some of them were leaping three metres clear in the air. We rang Alex Morton (the local expert on these critters) who said that a pod that large has not been seen for over five years on this coast.

Though we sometimes experienced rain and rough seas and had to hang on for dear life in the observation platform as the boat rolled and pounded, the waters at Dixon Entrance on the Alaska border was like a mirror. We encountered a huge pod of around 70 northern resident Killer whales all resting together. The sound of all their blows echoed in the still day. We were able to identify individuals by their dorsal fins and by some of us listening and identifying their calls on the hydrophone. Some of these pods are rarely seen in the popular whale watching community of Johnstone Strait and it was amazing to see some of the young ones I knew eight years ago now with scarred fins and attitude.

Anchored at Langara Island, we were awoken at 4:00 am to see the starry sky alive with the northern lights. This extraordinary sight left me breathless, as often did the bioluminescence. Some nights the water was alive with fish, each one a brightly flickering green comet. We also saw a trillion seabirds like albatross, puffins and rhinoceros auklets… a twitcher’s dream.

On the last transect we had fin whales doing synchronized lunge feeding right next to the boat. A great way to go out, but one of my favourite memories from the survey was narrowly avoiding a rumble with a fisherman in Charlotte City. When I explained what we were doing on the survey, he professed “That’s just wrong … a vegetarian scientist from Australia trying to tell us that we can’t drill for oil on the BC coast because it might piss off a whale?”

Shyeah buddy, that’s right.

Olive Andrews
October 2005
Back home in Aussieland

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